Solo Carpet Cleaning and Loving It!

by John O. Andersen


"So when are you going to get another van and hire somebody?" I get this question at least once a week. The assumption is that anyone who cleans carpets for a living naturally longs for the day when he grows big enough to hire people to do the labor.

Those who never "graduate" to the level of employer are often categorized as the less ambitious or lacking in managerial and leadership abilities to pull off the larger enterprise. They are the ones who are supposedly "working harder, not smarter."

Yet, there are plenty who have privately discovered just how rewarding the life of a solo operator can be. And though they may abundantly possess the traits and skills necessary to run a larger operation, they freely choose to remain small. They may discover that they are happier without the stress of managing people, or a large overhead. Or perhaps they find the demands of a bigger enterprise drain them of the energy and inclination to pursue other interests.

Whatever their reasons for remaining small, many solo operators have found a way to both earn an income which meets their needs and enjoy a lifestyle which helps them feel whole and complete.

I am one of those people.

Granted, there is a market demand for carpet cleaning companies of all sizes from the solo operator to the multi-van business. I'm not proposing that everyone should become solo operators. Rather, I'm merely describing how a personal quest to align my values with my daily life, has led *me* to choose the solo option. Each individual will have a different path. Some may find that same alignment in the larger company. The path taken is far less important than the outcome achieved.

A few years ago I was a prisoner to the idea that being successful required that I "grow a business." When people used to ask me how many employees I had, I was embarrassed to report I only had one full-timer and a few part-timers. Now when they ask, I proudly declare that I have none. When I get a puzzled look, I just go on about how much "wealthier" (and this does not exclude financial well-being) I am without employees. By this stage of the conversation, if they're still listening, many of them are convinced that I'm certifiably insane.

"But if you set your sights high," they counsel, "you can have both financial wealth, and tons of free time." Others enthusiastically share how a personal mission statement and day planner had changed their lives. I won't dispute their claims. That approach apparently works for many people, but not me.

I'm happiest when I have time and space between activities; when I can unhurriedly move through the day, noticing things or sharing ideas with people with whom I come in contact. Trying to day-plan my way to "success" by stuffing as many activities as I can into each day just doesn't feel natural. I require a slower tempo.

This self-knowledge came through pursuit of a mainstream version of success. During my first two years in the business, I was going for the "big time." It was heady stuff to be an employer, and in the community my status was on the rise.

Then somewhere along the line, my values clashed with the reality of my daily existence. Deep down, I wanted a slower pace. But I discovered that the demands of growing a business were pushing me in the other direction. I was always chasing receivables to meet weekly payroll. I dreaded answering the telephone for fear of another complaint about employees or that they couldn't make it to work that day. I loathed paying hundreds of dollars to accountants to handle financial and tax records due to a more complicated business organization. My wife and I were tired of the invasion of privacy inherent when employees came to our home in the morning. These and other aspects of the "big enterprise" were causing us to live out of alignment with our values. We were fed up with all of it.

Then when my full-time employee quit, I decided to go it alone using part-timers only when necessary. Later I did away with even the part-timers. Amazingly, this was the single most important step to reclaiming my life. Suddenly we had more money for ourselves. The customers were more satisfied. Our family life improved, and we had much more leisure time.

It has been three years since taking that step "backwards," and I find myself enjoying the business to a degree I never thought possible. More than anything else, I'm grateful for the relatively early discovery that having money and prestige at the expense of other things we consider more valuable, wasn't the sort of success we wanted. Some people are fortunate enough to achieve material success without compromising deeper values. To a certain extent, however, I found I had to choose one or the other. With this in mind, I concluded that running a solo business was *my* best option.

Advantages of Staying a Solo Carpet Cleaner

Manual labor gives a sense of wholeness

Manual labor feels good, and for me there are few things as gratifying as achieving visible results that make people happy. This type of labor is also essentially soulful. The exertion of muscles, working up a sweat, the care for my van, the meticulous set up and take down of cleaning equipment at the job site, the extra attention to getting difficult spots--all add to the joy of this work. Such simple joy eluded me when running the business from my desk.

Pillow talks and sword fights

The lower stress and demands of a one-man operation allow me to devote more time and energy to my wife and two children. In the mornings I enjoy regular pillow talks with my wife and sword fights with my five-year-old son. In the evenings I find occasion to read to my eight-year-old daughter or just talk to her about her latest drawings (she is a budding cartoonist). Yes, I could do all of that with a large operation as well, and some would argue that I could do that even more. But having tried both, I know myself well enough that the greater responsibilities of a bigger enterprise would inevitably curtail the time and inclination I have for these less pressing but highly satisfying activities.

Avoiding the "big bucks" lifestyle

Believe it or not, we see this as a blessing. More money for us means more stuff and more stuff means more repairs, more maintenance, more cleaning, and less time for what we love to do.

Sure, we need a certain amount to support a comfortable lifestyle and not have to live from hand to mouth. And, of course, we want some left over for savings, retirement and a bit for fun right now. Beyond that, we see little need to work for more money especially when the price is the loss of other activities which we enjoy more than the things money can buy, for example, quiet evenings together, reading time, and tickle fights.

Chance of illness or injury promotes healthy living

Doing physical labor for my livelihood provides a strong incentive to have healthy habits: eating wholesome home-cooked meals, practicing thorough hygiene, and getting plenty of rest. The regular exercise, of course, takes care of itself.

True, even the most careful of people could suffer an injury which puts them out of business. This is why a solo operator is wise to develop alternative income sources. Learning new skills, taking an occasional class, reading up on long-standing interests--all contribute to greater self-sufficiency and a healthy lifestyle. Come to think of it, this is a good strategy for anybody, not just solo carpet cleaners.

Too many people who want to go solo allow their fear of illness or injury to hold them back. This is unfortunate, because if they were able to change their perspective, they could see solo self-employment as a powerful catalyst toward healthier living.

Be choosier about customers

When I had employees, I always took whatever work came my way. I had to keep the cash flowing. These days I shy away from the high hassle/low margin customers. Many times these are the commercial jobs which can only be done at night (hence throwing off your schedule the next morning), and cut-rate jobs such as apartments for which you often wait 30-60 days to get paid.

As a one-man operation with substantially lower overhead, I have much greater control over the type of customer I accept and the hours I work.

Also, the lower overhead frees me from the pressure to up-sell the customer or rush from job to job. There is more time to chat with the customers and learn interesting things about their homes, work, and hobbies.

Embrace the seasonality of carpet cleaning

Rather than always trying to outdo my previous month sales, as a one-man show, I can take a more relaxed approach. With sufficient effort during the busy months and regular savings, I've found that I can look forward with anticipation rather than dread to the slow months.

Back in my employer days, I always felt under the gun to "keep the fire stoked." If we had a slow day or two, we would be out on the streets distributing brochures, calling previous customers, arranging for new advertising, etc. The overhead created constant pressure to drum up business. I can still remember vividly how nervous I would get when the phone stopped ringing.

Now, I actually look forward to slow months. We plan our vacations for that time. And this doesn't really impact the bulk of our customers because we keep good records and know when they are going to call to get their carpets done again. Closing down for two or three weeks may result in losing a few customers, but over the long haul, the losses will be minimal compared with the personal benefits of getting away.

Staying solo has worked well for me. It's not for everyone. But for the right person, it's a good vehicle to true wealth and success--the kind which feed both the body and the soul. I'd recommend it to anyone.


Copyright 1998 by John O. Andersen. All rights reserved. Any communications regarding this article should be sent to andersen@spiritone.com.

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